Flashing Blades

As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews of their products, Fantasy Games Unlimited had a novel but rather effective business model: Scott Bizar, their head honcho, would solicit freelance authors to submit their games to him, and if they made the cut a deal would be struck for FGU to produce and distribute the games in question. This allowed FGU to put out a lot of product on a “throw everything out there and see what sticks” basis – game lines which became a hit could have supplements published for them, whilst those which didn’t gain traction could be abandoned – and also meant that FGU’s roster was impressively diverse, with games ranging from classic fantasy subject matter (like Swordbearer and early editions of Chivalry & Sorcery) to riskier experiments. Bunnies & Burrows was perhaps the greatest oddity of their back catalogue, but Bushido represented a bit of a departure as far as subject matter was concerned when it first came out and whilst Villains & Vigilantes was not the first superhero RPG, it was arguably the first one to really gain traction.

That deep roster has proven a boon for Bizar in the PDF age – whilst it would be obviously uneconomical to keep all of FGU’s different products in print at the same time, thanks to PDF distribution and print-on-demand Bizar doesn’t need to, so thankfully a large proportion of FGU’s releases have become available again through legitimate avenues. (A happy side effect of the Villains & Vigilantes ownership dispute is that Bizar went out of his way to get the extensive back catalogue on the game up on DriveThru – presumably to add weight to his claim – and the terms of the settlement between Bizar and the game’s designers is that he gets to keep almost all that supplemental material available.) Through this means we have available once again Mark Pettigrew’s delightful historical RPG Flashing Blades.

Flashing Blades came out in 1984, but its rules are thankfully light by the standards of the time – in fact, the rules booklet is only 48 pages long and also includes setting material. (The core set also includes some loose cheatsheets of handy material and a 16 page adventure supplement.) It takes as its subject the classic swashbuckling era, as vividly imagined in the fiction of Dumas or Sabatini – specifically, it has the player characters be members of various strata of society in 17th Century Paris called on to adventure in the name of King, Cardinal, Country, Religion, or whichever other ideal gives them the spark of motivation.

1980s RPGs have a tendency to be a little dry, and gamers have this chronic tendency to regard historical settings as somehow more boring than fantastical ones, but Flashing Blades puts paid to both notions. It is absolutely stuffed to the gills with flavour, right from the start of the back cover blurb which is so good I’m going to quote it here so you can drink it in.

It was a question of honor, and honor was always foremost in the minds of the men who strode through the age of the Sun King. A deserted courtyard on the edge of Paris was the stage on which they met with… FLASHING BLADES.

After that, how can you not want to investigate the game? That’s what drew me in, and personally I am very glad I answered this particular siren call.

Pettigrew’s approach to history is also refreshing – delighting you with the details of it, but not insisting that you must absolutely get it 100% right. A common concern with historical games is that historical attitudes to gender were often not great, and out of a concern for “historical accuracy” many designers sometimes take that too far – oversimplifying the situation and assuming that just because particular non-conforming behaviours were frowned on, that meant that people never attempted them and/or never succeeded at becoming a success despite social disapproval. Fortunately, Pettigrew isn’t a stick-in-the-mud on this issue: whilst he does note that women generally weren’t musketeers back in the day (at least not openly), he notes that the enjoyment of the players at the table is what’s important so if you want to have male and female characters on an even stance then you should go ahead and do that, and there’s no systemic penalties to playing women.

As far as uptime actions go, the highlight of the system is the combat, which does a rather excellent job of mimicing the action of swashbuckling adventure stories. There’s a nice feature where your weapon type gives you various choices as to how you attack, and if a defender successfully guesses which attack type you are going for they get a bonus; larger, more unwieldy weapons have more limited choices, or perhaps even one choice, which in my experience of LARP fighting feels like actually quite a nice accurate way of showing how generally the movement of such weapons is a bit more predictable than lighter weapons.

There’s some quite interesting downtime rules as well. You see, Flashing Blades kind of is and kind of isn’t the first RPG to go down this road before; back in 1975, Game Designers’ Workshop put out a game called En Garde! that was all about being a social climber in 17th Century France. However, whether En Garde can truly be categorised as a tabletop RPG – or at least, as a traditional one in the way they are usually understood – is a bit of an open question. It offers rules for determining such things as the results of tours of duty in the French armies and other such activities, but it crucially does not have any rules for resolving freely-declared actions – if an option isn’t coded into En Garde!, you can’t do it.

In fact, En Garde! can be refereed in a mostly automated fashion – you could absolutely write a program to collect and process people’s turn orders and output results. On the one hand, this has meant that En Garde! has enjoyed a certain longevity because it turned out to be very convenient for running on a play-by-mail basis, and later on a play-by-Internet basis; on the other hand it does mean there’s scope for a healthy argument as to whether En Garde! really qualifies as a fully-featured traditional RPG, since it does not give the referee the freedom to make rulings (and thus does not give the players the freedom to take imaginative actions) the way that traditional RPGs are usually defined as doing.

Flashing Blades, in fact, seems to have been inspired somewhat by En Garde! – I can absolutely imagine that Pettigrew wrote it after becoming frustrated with En Garde!‘s limitations. In particular, there’s downtime actions for undertaking tours of duty with the French military and other professional and personal activities which seem to be extensively influenced by En Garde!.

What’s even more interesting to me than these rules themselves, however, is Pettigrew’s notes on their use. He makes the entirely fair point that they aren’t necessarily going to suit all groups – especially if you’re just running a one-shot – but for the purposes of an ongoing campaign they can add a heap of flavour. On top of that, he even makes the point that you can use them to break up periods of adventuring (with one or two adventures happening a year) and make a truly generational game, with the campaign unfolding over a span of years. This I find fascinating because it has Pettigrew enunciating, a full year before it was published, the concept of generational play over an epic span of history which became a major factor in Pendragon – thus anticipating a widely-celebrated innovation in game design and in the idea of what a campaign might cover.

Indeed, it’d probably be viable to keep playing such a game through the Eighteenth Century – Pettigrew suggests elsewhere in the book that the game could extend at least into the early 1700s, and I reckon you could probably see your way to taking it even further perhaps culminating in the seismic social shift of the French Revolution – an apt time to bring the age of swashbuckling adventure to an end as the system of privilege the player characters have been enmeshed in finally collapses under the weight of its self-serving corruption and public outrage. To continue the Pendragon analogy, it’d sort of be the game’s equivalent to the final battle between Mordred and Arthur.

I don’t know if Pettigrew, Bizar, or anyone else is still considering producing Flashing Blades material, but a Flashing Blades riposte to the Great Pendragon Campaign, offering detailed accounts of social change from the Seventeenth to late Eighteenth Centuries along with suggestions for adventures taking place along that timeline, would be rather magnificent.

Whether or not Flashing Blades gets any future supplements, it did get a brace of support material published for it – substantially more than a great many other FGU releases, though less than its most successful lines like Chivalry & Sorcery or Villains & Vigilantes got back in the day. This suggests that it was a minor but notable success in its time, and I rather hope that its PDF release allows it to get a new lease of life now. Non-supernatural/fantastical/SFnal/horror-themed historical roleplaying is a rarity, but something I have a certain interest in, and Flashing Blades is an absolutely excellent entry in this all-too-unexplored subgenre.

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